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When Benjamin Britten composed his Saint Nicolas, he intended it as a piece that could be readily performed by an amateur choir, with the help of a soloist and a few professional musicians. He didn’t mean ‘amateur,’ of course, in the pejorative sense which the word too often carries today. After a couple months rehearsing Britten’s cantata with the King’s Chorus, I’ll testify that this isn’t a piece you can be mediocre or half-baked about. You have to be an amateur in the original sense: a lover of the music you’re singing.
Nick Halley, the director of King’s Chorus, says that this is central to what makes the King’s Chorus sound great every year: “The greatness of the music we’re doing makes everyone take it seriously and give it all they’ve got.” (We were talking over beers in the King’s Wardroom, where we’d headed after our Wednesday night rehearsal – a post-Chorus tradition.)
The other reason the Chorus works so well, Nick tells me, is the many choristers who return year after year, building up experience and helping out the newbies. Once you’ve felt the rush of singing awesome music with people who care about it, it’s hard to let go. A long-time chorister next to me nods. “The first day back [at rehearsal in September],” she says, “always feels like a revelation of, ‘oh yeah, that’s why I’m here.’ ”
The King’s Chorus started up in 2009, under the guidance of then chaplain Dr. Gary Thorne, DD’04, and on the initiative of students who wanted a space for beginners to develop their singing abilities through great music. Since then, we’ve performed one concert per term – including, in the Fall of 2013, a smashingly successful Saint Nicolas.
The text of Britten’s piece, written by Eric Crozier, puts into verse the wildest of the folk tales he dug up in his extensive research on Nicolas, the 4th-century bishop known to us as Santa Claus. If you want to hear more about how old Saint Nick revived three young boys who a less-than-savoury butcher had chopped up and sold as pickled meat, we have the concert for you!
I’ve talked to a number of choristers who sang in the 2013 concert: all remember it as a blast and an unmitigated hit. “After that concert,” Nick told me, “I had people coming up to me saying: ‘I don’t want to go see the Nutcracker every year; I want this to be my tradition, to hear St. Nick again!’ When I got home, I looked up the next year Saint Nicolas’ Day (December 6) fell on a Friday; it was 2019, and so I decided right then that we were doing it again this year.”
So far, so good. With just over a month to go, I can already feel us pulling Saint Nicolas together. It gives me goosebumps to think how phenomenal we’ll sound by our concert on December 6 if we keep up the pace. Sometimes in rehearsal, when we start sagging or tensing up, Nick pauses and reminds us: “sing it like you’re in love.” That usually does the trick.
The King’s Chorus, dir. Nick Halley, presents Saint Nicolas
with guest soloist Nils Brown, organist Paul Halley, and a chamber orchestra
Friday, Dec. 6, 2019 at 8 p.m. – St Mary’s Basilica, Halifax
Tickets: $10-$100, available now at tickethalifax.com